Chapter One – That Voodoo You Do


This Week’s Course Content 

I Walked With a Zombie (1943)

White Zombie (1932)

Tell My Horse by Zora Neale Hurston

Race, Oppression and the Zombie by Christopher M. Moreman, Cory James Rushton

  • Essay by Ann Kordas: New South, New Immigrants, New Women, New Zombies

Slaves, Cannibals, and Infected Hyper-whites: the Race and Religion of Zombies by Elizabeth McAlister (Essay)


A zombie by our characteristics today is a flesh eating, unconscious monster who is either raised from the dead or infected through a virus. The virus is usually spread by biting, as far as the most common stories lead on. The zombie represents the fear we feel from the other (Moremon, Rushton 3). Where did it all start? Considering it is proclaimed as horror’s only modern myth (Moreman and Rushton 2), did we just conjure zombies up like magic? Or was it someone else who conjured them up? 

The Origins of the Zombi:

Felicia, the 'zombi' Zora Neale Hurston documented in her book, Tell My Horse

Felicia, the ‘zombi’ Zora Neale Hurston documented in her book, Tell My Horse

The zombi, from its beginnings to when it was sensationalized in the 20th century represented in Haiti and U.S. culture the fear of enslavement. The origin of the zombi dates back to the ancient African rituals, where the secrets of Vodou culture began and were handed down from person to person. It was then taken to Haiti and other Afro-Caribbean islands during the slave trade, where the religion mixed with Christianity as the attempt to convert the Haitians began (McAlister). Vodou is a polytheistic religion. One section of the religion is zombification. This is done by a specific type of priest called a Bokor, who takes people from the graveyard, brings them back from the dead, and enslaves them for hard labour (Hurston 181). There is also the Astral zombie, which is something of a good luck charm. It is the soul of a person deceased “captured” in a jar who acts as an agent to your wishes. (One very interesting fact: If you do not feed the astral zombi it’s required meal, then it will gradually suck your life force… similar to the modern zombies literal consumption of life forces (McAlister)). A zombi can be seen as something signifying the difference between life and death and freedom and slavery (McAlister).

 “In Haiti there is the quick, the dead, and then there are the zombies”

(Hurston 179)

What is the religious necessity for zombies?

There is a natural fear reaction to the zombi. It is feared by both the rich and poor alike (Hurston 181) as a monster under the bed, a thief, an insult, and a threat to the Haitian people in so much that they have laws against zombification (Moremon and Rushton 3).  The threat of becoming a zombi is similar to the threat of hell with the eternal life of servitude as the punishment. They safe guard the bodies of loved ones with knives, poison to ensure death, and camp outs in the graveyards to protect them. It gives people a reason to be good and abstain from sin, in hopes that they will not make any enemies and succumb to this ‘undeath’.

The zombi exemplifies a slave. There are stories of ‘dead’ people made to work on plantations, for hard labour, made to do the dirty work of marrying off daughters in living families, or enemies killed and forced to do their bidding (As explained in Tell My Horse). What the Haitian people experienced first hand of slavery became a very similar fate they would instil on their own people (McAlister).

Whether or not this is a myth, it still shows the fear of the Vodou followers; They do not wish to be slaves again. “Just as slavery depended on capturing, containing, and forcing the labour of thousands of people, so does this form of mystical work re-enact the same process in local terms” (McAlister). It is interesting that the past of slavery and rebellion are now practiced in religious ways, where it is customary to shackle up and put to work zombis or cuff people who are zombis in order to ‘buy them back’ from evil spirits (McAlister). Perhaps this is just a memory of what had been inflicted on their people, as if the evil spirits are literal ghosts of their past.

The zombi can even be considered as “…myth-making that represents, responds to and mystifies the fear of slavery…and rebellion against it” (McAlister). Perhaps it is even a way of keeping their own kind of slavery to control their own people, not being controlled by another race. Perhaps zombification signifies independence from the white man. Or perhaps it teaches people to value being free.

There are two different ways to create a physical zombi. The first is after death, the Bokor, or the priest who preforms the zombification, enters the cemetery to find the bodies. The Second is that the Bokor chooses a live person, kills them, then brings them back. This can be done at the advice of other people, or for their own use. The following is Zora Neale Hurston account of what happens to a zombi victim:

  • A deal is made to the Bokor. He rides his horse backwards to the house of the victim.
  • He puts his lips on a crack on the door, sucking out their soul.
  • The person falls ill and dies.
  • The Bokor goes to the tomb at midnight, before 36 hours after death. No more.
  • He calls the name of the deceased, and they must answer and lift their head.
  • Then he passes the victims soul in a jar under his nose for a second to wake him further.
  • He shackles him and takes him away with the help of his associates.
  • The tomb is closed.
  • The associates take him to the hounfort, the epicentre of Vodou rituals.
  • They must walk by his house so that he will forget he lived there.
  • At the hounfort, he receives a mysterious drop of liquid and is a zombie forever, meant to labour without consciousness.
  • He will not awaken unless he is given salt.

(Hurston, 195)

This is an intricate ceremony with much mystery behind it. There are only myths heard around Haiti to solidify if this is how it really occurs. It is reported as secrecy handed down from generation to generation. However, the question is how did these religious ceremonies get to the U.S., and how were they changed to Black Magic?

From Vodou to Voodoo

The Princess and the Frog, an sensationalized example for some (very) modern day voodoo

The Princess and the Frog, an sensationalized example for some (very) modern day voodoo.

Vodou is a religion that has been audaciously sensationalized by U.S. pop culture. the term ‘Voodoo’ is the racialized version, which remains ignorant to the nature of the Haitian people and showing Vodou as something uncivilized and beneath white culture (Moremon and Rushton 3). Based on my research I am tempted to believe that because the religion is so obviously different from that of the religion of the U.S., this was the main reason for it being turned into something racist. “The zombie is synonymous with a kind of barbaric racial blackness” (McAlistor). Perhaps the belittlement of the Haitian culture was done keep the sanctity and importance of Christianity, but also to sanctify whiteness.

This is shown many examples of Voodoo as depicted in U.S. films of the 20th century. Haiti and the zombi provided the perfect slate in which to project the fears that American people had onto this ‘uncivilized, black magic’.

In 1791, a slave revolt began in Haiti. In an effort to escape, many plantation owners took themselves and their slaves to French – occupied New Orleans. Here, Vodou became not only slightly different with the mixture of Catholic and Native beliefs. The zombi was decently well known in the U.S. as a thing of Haitian culture, and not necessarily in a racist way (Kordas 16-17). However, the zombie did not become popular or sensationalized until the 20th century, when it was found that the zombie was”…a blank slate upon which the concerns of hopes and fears of white Americans could be written on” (Kordas, 16). Here, “black magic”, racism, and the ignorance of the Haitian culture was what changed Vodou to Voodoo and the zombi to something much more frightening – a blank page in the diary of the U.S. nightmare’s.

The Time Period of the 20th century in the U.S.

Similar to the way that Zombie movies today are a clean slate for our modern fears, so they were in the 20th century. In the early 1900s, “cultural representations of the zombie in the U.S. …. linked with cultural ideas regarding African Americans, and other people of colour, southern and Eastern European immigrants, and ‘modern’ women” (Kordas 16).

The post-civil war fear of African -American revenge resonated deep with middle-class, white Americans. However, the idea that zombis can be submissive workers is not frightening, and makes the type of slave the zombie is look attractive. Long hours, no communication, no arguments, no wages, and whatever else slave drivers find attractive in a worker. The walking dead looks a lot better from a completely controlled, submissive, and passive standpoint. What was scary to Americans was the projected slave drivers, or zombie masters in the horror films. Many of them were shown as Non-Anglo Saxon but not of Haitian or African American decent, leaving two connected fears that threatened the stable and familiar American life. (Kordas 18-19)

A serious fear that echoed within the U.S. was the post civil war influx of immigrants. In prior times, immigrants were Protestant or similar branch, finding it easy to adjust to American life. There began an immigration of people of Roman Catholic religion and the specific fear generated for people of Eastern European and Asian descent. The fear in these people was multifaceted. It was a mixture of fear of their religion and the belief that because they lived under the Pope as a leader, they would not be able to follow democracy. They would be against it, lacking freedom, tarnishing American life. Another fear was the large families produced by Eastern Europeans would eventually take over the population of the Americans, who at the time produced only 2 children per family. The fear here was that they would become second class citizens in their own country. (Kordas 21-23) Eastern European immigrants also were a supposed ‘threat’ to American women.

Women in the early 20th century were very different from other eras. They had a lot more freedom and less restrictions on behaviour. In addition to a more open sexuality of the time period (women and men engaged in premarital sex, usually with fiancées, which was unheard of in the 19th century), women had more choice in partners, often attended college, were fairly well educated and very active and not so passive in relationships. With this type of women, there was also a new threat called a White Slave, which is something still very feared today: The sex trade. (Kordas 26)

In the 20th century, these more naive women who were trying out the legs of revolution for the first time were easily seduced by men in fantastic places (boat trips, summer vacations, international trips, etc), incited by fake marriages, and drugged and poisoned into slavery in the sex trade abroad. These are still very real issues today that popular culture warns us about (The blockbuster, Taken). In films, the independent woman was portrayed as ‘in danger’ and often taken advantage of. Along side these independent women and their ability to choose new partners, and the threat of the White Slave. The White Slave owner, in film, was usually displayed as a foreigner, an echo of the immigration fear and the possible fear of immigrants ‘stealing’ their women. (Kordas 27-29). Here are two cinematic examples for Vodou, Voodoo, and American fears.

White Zombie 

"-The Haitian zombie- a symbol of the bokor or masters appetite, for wealth, sugar, white women..." (Moremon and Rushton 7)

“- The Haitian zombie- a symbol of the bokor or masters appetite, for wealth, sugar, white women…” (Moremon and Rushton 7)

The story begins with Madeline, a beautiful white girl, in a carriage with her fiancée Neil, whom she has been recently reunited and will be married. While on route to Haiti, Madeline Short become friends with Charles Beaumont, who convinces her to be wed at his mansion. Madeline and Neil are first introduced to the idea of zombies when their carriage passes a group of men who appear catatonic and their leader, who reaches into the carriage and steals her scarf.

After this, they arrive at Charles Beaumont’s home, on his wealthy plantation. Charles talks to his servant about how he has fallen in love with Madeline. He meets Legendre secretly, hoping for a way to make Madeline his. Legendre tells him he will make her into a zombie and gives him a potion. On the wedding night, Madeline is given the potion through sniffing a flower that the love-struck, rejected Beaumont gives her. After the ceremony, Madeline falls ill and dies. At the funeral, Murder and Charles bring her back as a zombie. Neil, now drowning is sorrows in alcohol, enlists the help of the minister, Dr. Bruner, to help him find Madeline, and they are guided to Legendre’s castle.

At the castle, Charles regrets his decision to turn Madeline into a zombie, because she is not the beautiful person she once was. At the same time, Legendre has poisoned Charles, working to transform him as well. Neil, in the castle, passes out from exhaustion and Legendre orders Madeline to kill him. She almost does, but the Minister grabs her knife.

Outside on an escarpment, Legendre commands the zombie guards to kill Neil, Neil follows Madeleine. When Legendre is attached by the Dr. Bruner, he loses control briefly of his zombies. His zombie enemies fall off the cliff undirected. As Legendre awakens, he attempts to go after his new enemies, but Charles, slowly dying, returns and pushes Legendre off the cliff. Charles also falls to his death. Madeline awakens and is with Neil and alive once more.

A brief character analysis will show some fundamental fears of the movie. There is first Neil and Madeline Parker, a newly engaged couple. Neil is working in Port-au-prince in Haiti, he is white, attractive, middle-class. Madeline is from new York. She is white, blonde, beautiful, innocent and very friendly. She wears white clothes that embody her time period, which assumes that she is the independent women characterized above, yet innocent. Then there is Dr. Bruner – the minister who is set to marry them. He is very warm, friendly, but also discouraging and acts as a conscious to the couple, warning them to stay away from Beaumont. Charles Beaumont is a upper-class, white plantation owner who, obviously looks as if he gets what he wants. Finally, there is ‘Murder’ Legendre, the Voodoo sorcerer, whose stare is one of terror. He is played by Bela Lugosi, and is of obvious eastern European descent. He contrasts the male characters by being dark and foreign, always wearing black. If his name doesn’t lend meaning to the plot, I don’t know what will. Additionally, there are only 2 African American speaking roles.

There are many things this reflects of the time period in the U.S. Legendre’s obvious control over the white and black people of this film show the obvious fear of immigration and the feared control and takeover eastern European immigrants that the Americans imagined. In one scene, Beaumont will not even shake his hand as he seems disgusted by him. In the end, it is shown that Legendre is on his way to taking over everything – he almost kills Neil, he covets Madeline, and Beaumont is soon to be his zombie slave.

Bela Lugosi's Zombie Stare

Bela Lugosi’s Zombie Stare

The most prominent fear however is the fear of White slavery. Even the name of the film – White Zombie– is only too similar. The manner in which Madeline is taken into zombification is similar to the way women were characteristically taken for the sex trade. She was seduced on a ship, or exotic location. She was duped into a fake wedding. Although her wedding was real, it was clearly a scam to steal her. She was drugged. She was then a hostage. As the poster says ‘Made to preform his every desire”. The very name and tagline represent a very real fear of the sex trade. (Kordas 27-28)

Overall the film was very interesting. The overall exaggeration of Legendre showed the immense fear of ‘foreigners’ and their ‘take-over’. Madeline’s experience was a warning to women to be more conscious of who they talk to. These will also be shown below in I Walked With a Zombie.

I Walked With a Zombie

“From an educated, intellect being to an unthinking, unknowing beast.” (Hurston 181)

“From an educated, intellect being to an unthinking, unknowing beast.” (Hurston 181)

I Walked With A Zombie was a film made in 1943. It is the story of a Canadian nurse, Betsy, who is sent to care after a rich plantation owner’s wife on the Caribbean island of Saint Sebastian. However, the story is more intricate than that. Jessica, Paul Holland’s wife, is apparently disturbed. She can perform basic tasks but does not speak or seem alive. She is a zombie, although this is never confirmed. The two brothers, Paul and his half brother, Wesley Rand are also at odds. Wesley was seemingly involved in an affair with Jessica prior to her falling ill. He is also an alcoholic, while Paul is a very harsh and cruel man. In the middle is their mother, Mrs. Rand, who runs the doctor’s office on the island. She has also deceived the people of the island by being the ‘Voodoo master’ of the hounfort, mixing her Christian medicine with the Vodou culture.

It is evident that, through both their expertise, Jessica is incurable. Soon, Paul and Betsy fall in love, and he tries to convince Betsy to run away with him or get off the island. It is soon that Mrs. Rand confesses that she was possessed by Voodoo gods and she made them turn Jessica into a zombie for the good of keeping the family together. The brothers deny that voodoo exists, except Wesley knows the truth. That night, the voodoo priests who believe Jessica is a zombie summon her, and Wesley opens the gate. She is killed via Voodoo doll to the beat of bongo drums. The zombie guard, Carre-four (pictured at start) comes to get her. Wesley takes Jessica into the sea to run away, and he ends up drowning. This film was not a happy ending, unlike White Zombie.

What does this mean? What American fears are here? Well primarily, the fear of sexual transgression (Kordas 27). The fear of sin. “The American zombie is almost always a sign and a symptom of an apocalyptic undoing of the social order” (McAlister). The voodoo culture shown here is very primitive looking, uncivilized and superstitious in the films. I believe that the uncivilized nature of the Voodoo culture represented here is a metaphor for the uncivilized lack of social order that the Rand/Holland family uses to run their lives. Jessica sins sexually and becomes a zombie. Paul loses his wife and brother because he is a harsh, cruel man. Wesley loses his life for his illicit love for Jessica and is a frequent substance abuser. Mrs. Rand ends up breaking up the family anyway and the morals cannot be saved. They are all zombies in the fact their world is ending due to the unravelling of the social order. The movie is trying to say that are slaves to their own sin.

As far as sexual transgression is concerned, it is seems that women are the insinuators, of the transgression (Kordas 29). The women in films as zombies are characteristically white, which assumes a message to a specific demographic. Jessica initiated her love affair, and faced the consequences. Madeline gave the time of day and ‘led-on’ Beaumont, hence had a hand in her own demise. If she had rejected the rose, she may not have died. As far as the movies portray, the women here are portrayed to be blamed for their actions, needing to be ‘saved’ by their white lovers or husbands. The idea is, in Madeline’s case, that “beautiful women restored to their husbands after having learned the dangers attached to modern behaviour” (Kordas, 30), and that even after death (Jessica is killed), Men still wish to save their Anglo-Saxon women from non-Anglo men (Wesley carries her into the sea to keep her from Carre-Four, the black zombie), and the fear of miscegenation (many sorcerers are depicted as people looking to take control over white women (McAlister), thus instilling this fear of multi-racial couples).

One things stand remains outstanding to me. Even though there is the obvious threat of zombification, there is still the boy meets girl – boy loses girl – boy gets girl back plot line . It is here that I ask that the question of freedom and the question of slavery…does it freedom lie with the woman, or does the concept of freedom lie with whoever ‘owns’ her? 

Racism In The Films

Shot from White Zombie and I Walked With a Zombie, Haitians displayed as servers to white people

Shot from White Zombie and I Walked With a Zombie, displays of workers meant to cater to the white people

African and Afro-Caribbean cultures have been misunderstood for centuries. Religions are assumed as cannibalistic, the people are barbaric, they are uneducated, and different than white people. These greatly affect cinema when the story surrounds the background of these stereotypes. “Post-colonial scholars re-describe how the Europeans convinced themselves of the twin facts of native cannibalism and native inhumanity” (McAlistor). These misunderstandings are what created a hotbed for racism in America. This obvious fear of the ‘primitivism’ and ‘uncivilized danger’ of the African people is reflected in the films, as well as racial tensions of the U.S. The films were extremely white centric. In the time period, it seemed to be shocking enough that a zombie could be ‘White’ similar in a way that it seems shocking that a White person could also be a slave. Even the Voodoo priests and priestess are not black. The only representation of Haitians were people used uneducated language, dismissed by others as crazy when speaking of Voodoo were shown in service and labour jobs, and presumed slaves to the rich people (driving carts, taking the white men home, etc).

In one scene in White Zombie, and another in I Walked With a Zombie, the contrast between rich and poor is stark. In White Zombie, a Haitian man on a donkey guides Neil and Bruner to the castle of Legendre. The two men are dressed in white on huge white horses, while he, in addition to speaking poorly, is also on a donkey about half that size. This difference is a representation of both good v.s. evil and well brought-up v.s. uncivilized. Legendre’s slaves are Black, and his enemies, or his associates are white men of French descent. Is it that even with total control they are still unfit for slave work?  Another example is in I Walked With a Zombie, Betsy the nurse and Paul, the plantation owner are on a boat together. They are in clean, well-kept clothing, and the Haitians aboard are the ones driving, sitting on the deck and eating chicken from their hands. It is this that shows that the people were only shown in scenes to show either servitude or uncivilized nature.

What a plethora of information encircles the rich history that is the Origins of the Zombie. Who knew it came from something so rich. And who knew, like many things foreign that passed through the golden gates of North American culture, it could become so starkly different from its initial beginnings? One thing remains the same; the threat of the zombie as an undead human being has and will continue to reflect our fears and beliefs, whether they begin with the fear of slavery, or end with the fear of the Other. The beginnings of Zombies culture is an amazing starting point to understand what started the eventual consumption of our society.

And finally, Chapter one is complete, stay tuned next week for Chapter 2

Garrhfashsfdhfdd zzzzzzzzz, (The sound of an exhausted zombie),




P.S. – please tell me what you think, how I can improve on writing style, what you would like to see, etc! Thanks!


Moreman, Christopher M.; Rushton, Cory. “Race, Oppression and the Zombie : Essays on Cross-Cultural Appropriations of the Caribbean Tradition.” (2011): 232. Print.

 Kordas, Ann. “New South, New Immigrants, New Women, New Zombies.” Race, Oppression and the Zombie : Essays on Cross-Cultural Appropriations of the Caribbean Tradition. North Carolina: McFarland & Company, 2011. 15-30. Print.

McAlister, Elizabeth. “Slaves, cannibals, and infected hyper-whites: the race and religion of zombies”. Anthropological Quarterly 85.2 (2012): 457+. Academic OneFile. Web. 13 Jan. 2013.

I Walked with A Zombie. Dir. Tourneur, Jacques. Prod. Val Lewton. Perf. Anonymous RKO Pictures, 1943.

White Zombie. Dir. Halperin, Victor. Prod. Edward Halperin. Perf. Anonymous Film. RKO Pictures, 1932.

Hurston, Zora Neal. “Tell My Horse.” Harper Collins, 1938: 327. Print.


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